Monday, April 29, 2013

Speaking Spaces Part 1: The Family Bed

This series of posts is opportunity to share fun and lively stories about our children and childhood featuring three centers of kid activity: the family bed, the family table and the family room. Please join the party and share your stories too! You can link in the comment section and I'll share them here.

What draws a child to their parents' bed? Perhaps it is an invisible string that pulls them back towards the place where their existence began. Perhaps it is the comfort of their parents' scent, or just because it is a large, soft nesting place, a place to catch them, whether they need a nap or a play surface to bounce off of. In any case, it is more than a practical piece of furniture. To a child, it plays an important role in the creation of an atmosphere of well being and safety. Which is why, even if you don't practice co-sleeping, the parents' bed is always the family bed.

Let's start with a typical day. Before the sun rises, I am usually up, and the youngest, who almost always wakes up for a feeding in the middle of the night, is usually still snoozing in it. When he wakes, he comes to find me so he can be fed and changed. The other children pop up, one by one, and the circus begins. Breakfast to be fixed (boxes and bags to open, bowls to get down, milk to pour, eggs to scramble, stuck toast to remove), and the order of computer turns to be decided, and lots of things they all thought about to tell mama in the morning. Pretend plays and arguments, and my mind is swirling while I juggle the flood of input and try to make a mental list of what needs to be done that day. Sometimes I never think about the bed again, until I crash into it at the end of the day. But a lot more goes on that I rarely take the time to notice. Yet today, a bit of reflection brings light to the dark corners of my memory, and I can look a little deeper.

If I go into the bedroom to use the attached bathroom to brush my teeth, change a diaper or whatever, one or more of the kids usually follows. Naturally, there is a narrative going on and a romp begins. The room is no longer a bedroom, but the scene of a battle. And Samurai rangers are fighting the bad guys. Ha! Ho! Ya! Ha! Miriam kicks the air, swinging her body around. Reuben and Seth tumble to the floor, rolling up the bed (or so it seems) and now the warriors have a soft landing. But now they are dinosaurs crawling into their caves under the blanket. But the T-rex fight is interrupted by the Samurai warrior princess and the scene morphs again. All this is going on behind my back while I change the baby, thinking about the next thing that needs doing. To me, it is only in the background. If they get too rough, they get rebuked, but usually everything dissolves when I walk out of the room. Only the detached spread and piled pillows are evidence of the battle that was there, the one that saved the world once again from the threat of evil.

The day wears on, and the energy begins to dwindle. An argument ensues, one does not get his way, and so he slinks off to the bedroom, thumb in mouth, for a break. There he settles himself under the blanket, curls up, and lets out long sighs. Mama's pillow smells so safe, the scent that bonded them together since his birth. It remains imprinted, though gradually fades from awareness as he grows up. Today, at 6, he is just aware that the scent means comfort. The hormones released into the breast milk each time he nursed as an infant, formed a memory trigger of comfort to be always associated with that smell. After growing up, and visiting home, Mama's neck hug will greet him, and a fleeting wave that crosses the mental barriers of adolescent tensions and the breaking away that comes with growing up, unconsciously will bring out that sigh again. It is a bond that the years cannot sever.

Later in the afternoon, her pride offended after a spat with her sister, another stomps off to the bed. Lying there, straight as a board, she stares, frowning at the ceiling. Baby brother wanders in and wants up. He is still for a moment, letting her uncurl his soft hand and touch his fingertips. But only for a moment, then with a giggle and his toothy grin that is his very own, he is up. Sister's hairy head shnuzzles his belly and soon they are laughing and shouting. Next thing you know, they come out hand in hand. Sister's new pretend has begun in which she drives her baby to the store on the chairs lined up in the living room, with an invisible steering wheel and motor sounds that baby brother helps with. Armed with shopping bags, she showers him with gifts  of toys and treats from all parts of the department store that the whole house turned into. It even has a little restaurant that feeds babies cereal and raisins and cups of water and lets them color with crayons while they are waiting for their food. And the food comes with a toy prize, of course.

Papa comes home, and takes five on the bed before heading outside to his projects, surfs the net on his phone, while the eldest daughter cuddles and talks and asks incessantly about everything she has thought about and everything that pops into her head, the rate of which increases like popcorn in the popper as she gets warmed up. She takes a breath and sighs happily. It is so good to have Papa home.

Finally, it is bedtime. A circus of brushing teeth and repeated rounds of hugs, sweet dreams, kisses, goodnights, more sweet dreams and see you in the morning. One after the other goes down, then it is quiet for a moment, then one needs a drink of water he forgot, an extra hug, and the eldest thought of one more important thing. More sweet dream, goodnights, hugs, kisses and see you in the morning.

One day, it will be quiet. Very quiet. We will lie down in bed, wrinkled and frail at the end of the day, and then the echoes will rise from the mattress. Samurai battles, dinosaur roars, sighs, and endless last-minute goodnights. And we'll smile.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Herp Hunting with the Hardings

Virginia has quite a knack when it comes to finding natural treasures outdoors. The other day she saw two tiny spring peepers mating in the vernal pool at the edge of the field. She went back and took a picture of the eggs. I have tried several times, and failed, to even see one of these tiny frogs. I sure do hear them, but they fall silent before I quite find where they are hiding.

Then today, she begged to show me more eggs she had found in another pool further up the gully that cuts through the woods along the edge of our pasture. They certainly looked to be amphibious in nature, so we searched the web for more information. We are pretty sure they belong to the spotted salamander. 

Here is a video we took of our little expedition.

And here are two excellent videos about spotted salamanders and vernal pools.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Final Design Part 2

In my last post on my Permaculture Design Certification course, I had taken three soil samples from three different points on my site. I performed a simple jar test to assess the soil's physical structure, and also used a ph tester. Here are the results.

Sample 1: Nearly equal layers of sand, loam and clay. This was taken from an area where the soil was undisturbed, and the grass mowed occasionally (okay, seldom). It is in the lower part of the garden, and I suspect from the amount of sand, that it is a flood deposit area from times past. It is, after all, along a flood path from Thicketty Mountain to Thicketty Creek. This was demonstrated about seven years ago when we had a heck of a gullly washer. The garden I had tilled and sown with mustard was completely washed out. That is why we have been focused on raised beds using the square foot method. However, just as permaculture has lots of tricks for making water stay in the landscape, these same methods can be used to make the landscape resistant to flood damage. More about this later. The ph was about 6.8, if the cheap, crappy tester was correct, that is.

Soil Sample 2: This is taken from one of the raised beds. There was initially a lot of duff floating on the top, and it is no wonder because this bed gets annual applications of compost containing well rotted chicken manure. The ph was also 6.8. I do not know why algae grew on this one and not the others. It is probably more fertile. There is only a thin layer of clay and the rest is loam.

Soil Sample 3: Here we have mostly clay and the ph test showed higher acidity at 6.6. This sample was taken from a more recently prepared garden bed. But after using cover crops and grazing chickens, this was my most productive bed this past summer. I grew flour corn, pole beans and pumpkins. After enjoying several batches of corn bread, eating beans till we were sick of them and after many pumpkin pies, I still have some large ones to cook. I also have plenty of seed saved for an even bigger crop next year. I grew local and Native American heirlooms so they were well adapted to the climate. I plan to continue the practice of rotating the beds with grazing pigs, then chickens, then cover crops, then food crops to help the soil build even more fertility. I am also adding small amounts of crushed charcoal, a byproduct of our wood burning stove, and compost. The charcoal will raise the ph slightly and provide surface area for fertility creating microbial life. It also prevents leaching of nitrogen and other nutrients, so the soil holds it's fertility longer (as in centuries). Oh, and a tiller never touched it. I only used a spading fork to loosen weeds. And pig schnozes. And now I have a beautiful new broadfork to work it with from Gulland Forge, a Christmas gift from hubby.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Food Corps Visit the CFSA Sustainable Ag Conference

A Plate of Rainbows

    Imagine trying to put together a puzzle with dozens of pieces missing. The only pieces you have are at opposite edges and it is nearly impossible to tell what the whole picture is supposed to look like.  Some people, however, possess the gift of vision, the ability to see how everything should fit together, and also the gift of inspiring that vision in others. Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder of FoodCorps and keynote speaker at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's Sustainable Agriculture conference in Greenville, SC, is one such seer.  She recognized the need for school children to have access to healthy food, and as an organic farmer, also saw the need to restore locally grown food markets. (And she saw me come into the conference room with my son, Jude, in the ergo and hurried to offer me a chair. The room was packed with people standing in the back!) 
   A farmer, a teacher, a classroom, a cafeteria, thousands struggling with childhood obesity and hunger, both results of malnutrition and often in company with each other. And hundreds of young adults, eager to make a difference in the world, who need training, mentoring and sending out into the battlefield of world hunger, now a domestic reality. How could these all fit together?

   I saw a few of the "pieces" Saturday at the FoodCorp's workshop at the conference. Not only did I see them, but I got to meet, talk to and hug them. A young woman named Florita told of how she visits classrooms in North Carolina and teaches nutrition through fun charts, a plate of rainbow colors, songs and hands on activities. Another demonstrated fun exercises to get the whole body moving. Yet another team plans and sets up "taste testing" tables at school events.  We got to experience one successful experiment with collard greens. No, they weren't sauteed and slopped onto our plates, making everything around it soggy (bear with me, I like them just about any way, but I'm trying to think like a kid). We were handed a BIG LEAF and sent along a buffet line to assemble our collard wrap. Colorful sliced peppers, shredded carrots, hummus, just a touch of lemon juice...My taste buds were cheering in bold capitals! And what? We just ate all the plant parts we learned in our science lesson yesterday? Leaf, fruit, root, and mashed up garbanzos- the seed! We are eating our homework!

   But no less than the visible, colorful, engaging activities are the behind-the-scenes negotiating, bridge building and trust earning. The hard, long, patient process that addresses every concern, dispels every fear and breaks down those hard to see walls that often get in the way of something good. Like getting good, fresh food from a local farm into school lunches and kids' bellies. The FoodCorps (drum roll, please) does this, too. That day, his name was Sebastian.
   Next, we heard more moving stories from Lydia, Allison, Sarah, (I wish I could remember all the names, but I remember their faces). These soldiers have learned to adapt to the moment. They may grab a carrot from the school garden, see it pilfered by a bold youngster, and during the course of the fun food talk, watch it float to every corner of the room, handled and, yes, tried on in a hundred ways... and you can then imagine the magic of countless, tiny neurons connecting those small, orange dice on the menu with this beautiful, feathery topped, earth smelling taproot that makes a crazy wig!
   My favorite story was how they arranged for a class group to enter the Forbidden Portal, the Room of Mysterious Smells, where boxes are loaded into the back and somehow transformed into Today's Menu. But this time, they are no longer mere students. Today they are the Fantastic Five-and-a-Half's, the Veggie Heroes, the Super Chefs. And the hot, tired, often under appreciated kitchen staff welcome them in, help them cut things, roll things, mix things until the special School Snack is ready. And oh, the envy of the chosen few who get to stand with the crew behind the counter to serve. When I grow up, maybe I'll be just like you, and serve in the lunch line, helping kids make healthy choices.
   The audience, at this point, had their own stories to share. Jill is a farmer who teaches (or is she a teacher who farms?) and had her science class plant seeds as part of her lesson. A clamoring crew, some soil, pots, the allure of scarcity (only one seed each, please) and her spring starts are done for her. Another had the class bring apples, which are all different and can be sorted, grouped and charted many different ways before they are eaten.
   Thus, the pieces fall into place and mold themselves to the shape that is most needed to connect the scattered fragments. A picture begins to emerge. It is a picture of a village reborn, a community that realizes itself. A taproot that grows into many branching fronds and draws life and health, light and laughter into itself. A feast waiting for a world to wake up and gather around it.
    But there is so much to be done. There are still hungry people. And there are still people eating alone. Let's keep passing the Rainbow Plate, and not ever, ever let it stop. FoodCorps has shown us the way. They have shown that it can be done, and that there is a task for all of us.

-Sara Harding, October, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Final Design Part 1

It's the final stretch after months of study to complete my Permaculture Design Certification course. I have to come up with a final design that meets the standards set by the International Permaculture Institute in Australia.

To help me remember everything, I've made a sort of flow chart, breaking down each task into doable sized chunks. It really gave my brain a rest, so I didn't have to continually roll through the process every waking moment (and lots of sleeping ones, too). The orange and green outlines indicate what is done already. Details below.

The design starts with lots and lots of notes, on both sides of the paper, a printout of Permaculture principles (to guide the process), and a map. The mapping process consists of making a rough sketch of the area, then taking a baseline measurement along two or more convenient points (like two corners of a building or fence line). From this line, two measurements are taken for each additional point at the site and then converted to a scale that would fit on a piece of paper. I found that for my site, if every inch was eight feet, it fit almost perfectly onto an 8 x 11 sheet. (It's just slightly off. You'll have to imagine a quarter inch wrinkle somewhere on it, which comes out to two feet in real life. Better an extra two than two short!)
The mapping process started off with more than one frustration, but when I decided to round to the nearest foot, thing got a whole lot simpler. I used a piece of string and tiny pieces of tape to find the points from the baseline (and other points from those points). Mapping a point works quite well when measurements are taken from two known points at as close to right angles from each other as possible. The end of the string is taped to the first known point. Then a second piece is placed along the string at the scaled down measurement from the known point to the point being located. A third piece of tape is placed at the correct distance from the point being mapped to the second known point. This is then taped to that point on the map. The correctly mapped point is found when both legs of the string are pulled taut at the place where the middle piece of tape is. Most of the time, a compass is used to make arcs on the paper from both known points, and the correct point is where the arcs intersect, but I didn't have a compass so I improvised.

Here, at last, is the completed base map, including the permanent elements to remain in the design.

After the base map is completed, and copies made, an overlay (using clear sheet protectors and permanent markers) is made to show the directions of seasonal sun, shade and prevailing winds. This sector map helps to analyze the site so that these energies can either be put to best use (such as planting a sun trap- a u-shaped shelter belt to create a microclimate for cold sensitive plants) or blocked (such as planting a windbreak).

The next energy path to map is water. Water is life, and there are lots of tricks in permaculture to make the water stay around longer, eliminating the need for irrigation, especially when it depletes deep aquifers. But first, we have to map the contours. Here is simple device, called an A-frame level, that can be made for almost nothing. Two poles of equal length are cut (mine are 6 ft.) and lashed at the top. A cross piece is lashed at the exact distance from each end. My cross piece is about 3 ft. long and lashed three feet from the bottom of each leg. A rock tied to a string hangs below the cross piece to indicate the center. To find the exact center, the level is placed on as flat a surface as possible and a mark is made where the string comes to rest. Then it is turned around, placing each leg in the exact spot that the other one rested on, and again marked. The true center is right between the two marks. Once calibrated, the level is ready to be used. It is walked across one edge of the site to another, keeping one leg in one place while the other leg is moved around until the string rests on the center mark. Flagged sticks are driven into the ground to mark the points where the legs rest, and then the first leg is swung around to the other side, keeping the second leg in place this time, to find the next spot along the contour.

Here is a marked out contour line across the site. I tried to embolden the blue flags a bit to make them easier to see.

Time to map the contour lines. This method does not give the differences in elevation between the contour lines (another homemade level, called a bunyip, works for this), but an A- frame suits my purposes here. I just need to map the direction of the water flow. I also included an estimated location for the buried water line that goes to the spigot, and the buried drainage tile we put in several years ago under the two raised beds. The area used to be quite soggy, but it has dried out a bit over the last few years as topsoil has been built up and drainage improved (one of probably several factors). After mapping these, I traced them onto another overlay.

 Below is the base map with both overlays showing sun, wind and water sectors.

 Next up, soil test results. If you can see the contour map close enough, I marked three locations where soil samples were taken. They were placed in quart jars, topped with water, and shaken. Heavier particles fall to the bottom while lighter ones settle towards the top. When it finally settles out, I'll be able to get a good idea of the texture of my soil. I am also waiting for an inexpensive ph tester to arrive. Then I'll document the results. Until then, I'll keep studying what I've got and hopefully it will not be long until the new design is born.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Soil Speaks

I am temporarily using this blog as a repository of notes for my permaculture journal keeping.

I think the soil talks to me. In my old raised beds, the spent cornstalks still stood after harvesting, but beneath was a thick carpet of weeds. A closer look revealed that there were certain types of weeds thriving. Nature abhors a vacuum, so every spot of soil that does not have something planted or a thick mulch will grow something. And those somethings are what the soil is trying to say. I noticed a couple kinds of grasses, some horse nettles (nightshade family), a little jewelweed, wood sorrel, dandelion and this other moisture loving summer weed that is common around here.

So I am thinking that what I should have done was sow a late summer maturing cereal that doesn't mind moisture and a summer nightshade, when I planted the corn. I am thinking perhaps hulless oats and ground cherries would have been good choices. If wild cereals and nightshades wanted to grow there, perhaps the soil would have accepted edible varieties. Perhaps I can sow some over wintering types. Hardy potatoes? Winter rye?

The wood sorrel- there was not much of it- indicates that the soil is slightly acid. The relatively low number of dandelions indicates that the soil is fertile. There would be more of them if it was poor. Jewelweed and that other weed tell me what I already know from all the rain we've had. The soil is wet. So what else likes wettish, slightly acid, fertile soil?